Spring in the Balkans?

Written by on April 19, 2013 in Europe, News - No comments

If the Balkans have a crowd symbol, it is the traditional circular dance; the symbolism has been especially apt in the process of the countries of the former Yugoslavia joining – or seeking to join – the European Union.

But it is also true that in many circular dances, the direction changes when someone takes the lead and the pattern and pace are altered. Others, however, just keep going in circles.

This much came to mind this past week as there were reports and debates at EU level on the future of several Western Balkans’ European integration prospects. In turn, April 2013 is a crucial month as decision-makers prepare for the final approach to the European Council discussions in June on key issues, notably, for instance, whether to grant Serbia a start date for EU accession talks.

Yet as always has been true for the countries of the former Yugoslavia, the pace of their dances are not the same, and nor are the steps, and nor is every dancer equally adroit.

Serbia and Kosovo

On April 22, a meeting of the European Council will be briefed by EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton about the state of play in the EU-facilitated dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo.

But unless something significant changes from the point at which this is being written, when dialogue between the prime ministers of Serbia and Kosovo, lasting 14 hours on April 17, failed to produce an agreement about northern Kosovo, the enclave where ethnic Serbs are in the majority.

Ashton has kept on talking about differences between the two sides that are “narrow, but deep” and found herself saying, after the April 17 dialogue, that “I can say with real confidence that the differences are narrow and very shallow”.

She hoped that before the current timeframe ran out, “both delegations will reflect on whether they can take the final steps necessary to finish this agreement and to move their people forward into the future”.

Serbia and Kosovo blamed each other for the failure to reach a deal.

This, however, is not a matter for undue drama. Since the start of the EU-mediated dialogue in March 2011, there have been ups and downs (not really circles), especially when there have been incidents of violence at the two countries’ common border.

Speaking ahead of the April 17 dialogue, at the release of the European Commission’s 2012 progress report on Serbia, European Enlargement and Neighbourhood Policy Commissioner Štefan Füle said that he hoped that the dialogue would result in a clear agreement.

“This is in the strategic interests of both Serbia and Kosovo, and of the entire Western Balkans region, as well as of the European Union as a whole. It is time for Serbia and Kosovo to move on from the past and look ahead to a common European future. We hope the two leaderships will seize the historic opportunity that lies before them – in the very interest of their citizens,” Füle said.

This, he said, would allow for a positive review of Serbia’s progress by the European Council at the end of April, on the basis of the upcoming report from the Commission and Ashton.

“Second, I want to emphasise how much we value the courage of the new government in Serbia in agreeing to bold moves in that dialogue so far and explaining them in Serbia. The Prime Ministers have already met eight times, the Presidents once. We are witnessing a profound change of approach which we need to actively encourage. We also appreciate the recent moves by Serbia to improve relations with its neighbours, notably with Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina,” Füle said

It was equally important that Serbia continued its work on reforms, he said. “Since last autumn, we have witnessed a fresh drive on reforms: ministries and institutions are fully mobilised to address the findings of the Commission’s Progress Report.”

There was, he said, a new impetus in the areas of judicial reform, anti-corruption and anti-discrimination as you rightly say in your report.

At the same time, Füle cautioned that “in the light of eroding support in Serbia for the European Union project”, it was “all the more important to create a new dynamic in our relations. I count on the Serbian leadership to pursue this path with determination.”

Speaking separately on the topic of the European integration process of Kosovo, Füle reiterated the messages about the dialogue that he sent when speaking about Serbia, adding that the EC would soon submit a recommendation to the European Council “to agree to and sign a framework agreement with Kosovo allowing it to participate in European Union programmes, thus fulfilling a key wish of this house. Both agreements will eventually be submitted to this (European) Parliament and I look forward to its consent,” Füle said.

Montenegro

Füle found much more cause to be upbeat in the case of Montenegro.

In his view, the country continued to make “great progress” on its path towards the EU. Twenty-six chapters in accession negotiations have been closed.

Füle saw four challenges ahead – first, constitutional reform to ensure judicial independence and accountability; progress in the fight against corruption and organised crime; full compliance with European standards of fundamental rights; and further efforts were needed, Füle said, to improve the situation of the Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian community and of displaced persons by ensuring access to their civil and political as well as economic and social rights.

“Our dialogue with Montenegro on these outstanding challenges will continue and intensify during the negotiations.”

He added a note on the recent presidential elections, which are being contested.

“Montenegro is a country negotiating for EU membership. Any complaints need to be dealt with swiftly. The election result must be beyond reproach. I am confident that Montenegro’s political leaders will take measures to reinforce the credibility of public institutions as well as their independence from party-political interests, Füle said.

Macedonia

Füle said that the main conclusion of the EC report on Macedonia was that implementation of reforms was “on-going and largely back on track” after the political crisis of January and February. “Relations with neighbours remained good and steps have been taken on the bilateral relations with Bulgaria and Greece. Formal talks on the ‘name issue’ under the UN auspices took on new momentum during the reporting period. The UN Secretary General’s Special Representative tabled another proposal last week in talks in New York with the two negotiators and hope that this can lead to agreement.”

Croatia

Due to join the EU on July 1 2013, bringing the membership of the bloc to 28, Croatia was ready for membership, Füle said.

Croatia’s active observer status will come to an end. The work to turn membership into a success will start, he said.

“Croatia arrives at a moment when the European Union is experiencing its most serious economic and financial crisis. Many decisions have been taken to overcome the crisis over the last few years and Croatia can now provide its contribution to the resolution.”

EU membership presents many challenges, but also creates many opportunities, Füle said. The structural funds and the participation in the internal market offer important opportunities to get the Croatian economy out of its current recession.

Croatia will also set to achieve two new strategic goals: joining Schengen, and adopting the euro. For the latter, Croatia will need to enhance the competitiveness of its economy, continuing the structural reforms it has started, Füle said.

Slovenia

Already a member of the EU, Slovenia has had its political dramas and changes in recent years, and its own role in the accession process of Croatia because of bilateral disputes.

Slovenia had threatened to bar Croatia’s way into the EU unless a bilateral dispute over the former Ljubljanska Bank was not resolved first. The dispute involved the savings of more than 130 000 Croatians who deposited more than 150 million euro in the bank before the breakup of Yugoslavia in 1991. Agreement to end the dispute was achieved in March, opening the way for the early April ratification by Slovenia’s parliament of Croatia’s accession treaty. The early hurdle that was overcome was a resolution in 2009 of a border dispute between Slovenia and Croatia.

For now, however, the bigger issue involving Slovenia is whether it will need a financial bailout. Ljubljana insists that it will not. Slovenia’s prime minister, Alenka Bratušek, got the backing of European Commission President Jose Barroso this past week in putting the message that Slovenia was not “the next Cyprus”.

Some good news came on April 17, when Slovenia raised more than twice as much as planned in a treasury bill tender aimed at easing pressure on its finances.

Slovenia’s finance ministry used the proceeds to buy back a large tranche of debt maturing on June 6.

“I don’t think Slovenia is out of the woods yet, what the market will want to see now is a pretty detailed reform program,” said Tim Ash, emerging market analyst at Standard Bank, quoted by news agency Reuters. “Slovenia’s own track record of state ownership leaves a major question mark as to whether they will push ahead aggressively enough with state asset sales.”

Soon after the domestic debt sale, Slovenia was reported to have hired BNP Paribas SA, Deutsche Bank AG and JPMorgan Chase & Co banks to organise international bond investor meetings.

(Photo of European Enlargement and Neighbourhood Policy Commissioner Štefan Füle: EC Audiovisual Service)

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About the Author

Clive Leviev-Sawyer is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of The Sofia Globe. He is the author of the book Bulgaria: Politics and Protests in the 21st Century (Riva Publishers, 2015).